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April 2004
Erie, Pennsylvania

    Interstate 90 cuts through a short section of Pennsylvania between the much longer stretches of the highway in Ohio and New York. If you look at a map, you might even wonder why this is Pennsylvania at all—extend New York’s southern border to Lake Erie and you’re almost to Ohio. Shouldn’t it logically be part of New York?  

    Well, first of all, logic wasn’t necessarily a deciding factor when it came to drawing state boundaries. But more to the point, this region—known as the Erie Triangle—is an unusually valuable piece of real estate and has long been subject to intense competition. Just about everybody has wanted rights to the Erie Triangle. First, Native American tribes fought for control of it. Then the French claimed it, then the English, then the states of New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania all contended that this land was their land.

    Why was it such a big deal?  Back in the late 1700s when those four American states were staking their claims, land was what this country had the most of. Why struggle over this little bit of territory when the states didn=t know what to do with all the land they already had?

    The correct answer is: Lake Erie. Access to Lake Erie provided military and economic advantages. Of the four states with claims on the Erie Triangle, only Pennsylvania was without a port on a major waterway. Pennsylvania was a huge state, but it was landlocked, so the new United States Congress convinced the other states to give up their claims and then the federal government sold the 200,000 acres of the Erie Triangle to Pennsylvania for $.75 an acre.  Such a deal!

    Actually, Pennsylvania paid the government even less than that because it used a form of money called Continental Certificates which had become so devalued as to be practically worthless.  Hence, when Pennsylvania finally acquired rights to the Erie Triangle—which so many others had fought for—they got it virtually for free.

    The city of Erie was founded in 1795 and is the third largest city in Pennsylvania, behind Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. As Pennsylvania’s only port city, shipping has been an important industry since its founding—most of the ships of Commodore Perry=s fleet that defeated the British on Lake Erie in the War of 1812 were built in Erie. Today, paper manufacturing, plastics, and locomotive building also form the core of Erie=s industrial mix. 

    Erie was originally settled by people who came from New York and New England. Then those of Scotch-Irish and German background moved in from southern Pennsylvania, thus forming the ethnic mix that served as the beginnings of this city=s population. African Americans also became an important presence, reflecting Erie=s role as a station on the Underground Railroad.

    Among the African Americans who have called this city home was a musician and composer named Harry Burleigh, who composed over 200 songs and arranged over 100 spirituals, including “Deep River,” “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Go Down Moses,” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”

    Harry Burleigh was born in Erie in 1866. His grandfather had been a slave who was blinded by a beating and then escaped and made his way north. Harry grew up in Erie, singing in church choirs as a boy and then attended the National Conservatory of Music in New York. While at the National Conservatory he introduced Czech composer, Anton Dvorak, to the music of the black spiritual, which influenced several of Dvorak=s works, including his New World Symphony. There are tunes in that symphony that remind of us spirituals—that’s Harry Burleigh=s influence.

    When the composer was still a boy, his blind grandfather sang to him: songs from his youth when he had been a slave. His grandfather=s voice stayed in Harry=s head and those songs—filled with both sorrow and joy—formed the foundation for the music Harry Burleigh wrote and arranged. 

    Those songs still live in our souls, expressing something universal in the human experience. Maybe sometimes we find ourselves singing softly to ourselves, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child...A long way from home.” If that ever happens to you, that tune is available thanks to the life’s work of this child of Erie.

For more about Erie and its surrounding communities, see the tape or CD for I-90 East: Cleveland to Erie or I-90 West: Erie to Cleveland.

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